Reflections On Knowledge Capture

Published in TDAN.com April 2006

The topic that is interesting to me lately is Knowledge Capture. A common refrain I hear from clients is: How do we get the information out of the business people’s heads, short of doing a Vulcan
Mind Meld? This is an obvious issue in requirements gathering. But perhaps it is much more pervasive. We need to foster the Knowledge Capture Culture: A business climate where we share nuggets of
useful information readily, with the common consensus that we will all be smarter and benefit from everyone else’s insights.

This has two parts: a culture piece and a technology piece. Technology is the easier thing to affect change, so let’s tackle this first.


Wikipedia as Knowledge Capture

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia, authored by the people– anyone can contribute entries and edit anyone else’s entries. For a more elaborate discussion of Wikipedia and governance issues, see
my articles:

Wikipedia is an excellent information collection mechanism. It stores the information in an encyclopedia entry, and it is searchable.

Imagine if we can get our users to capture that “great idea” – right when they get the insight. They click on an icon that brings up wikipedia, and they enter the subject of the idea, and a
description of the idea itself. Knowledge Capture at work!

The first step is to get people to start articulating their knowledge base that’s been locked up in their heads.


My Own Knowledge Capture Odyssey

I’ve been reading a book called Getting Things Done by David Allen. Much of the book is about getting things out of your head and into an organization system. He says our heads are
cluttered with so much stuff, some important, some not-that we become overcome by the clutter and cannot get anything done.

I reflected on this and noticed that because I don’t have a very good organization system, I miss opportunities, and I lose bits of information. For example, have you ever noticed that stuff
floats into your head, and because it is not convenient at that moment, you don’t record that thought-and then you promptly forget it? I observed this and realized that these fleeting thoughts
were sometimes “to-do” items but sometimes they were great ideas for an article or something that could really help a client. Wow! I was losing a lot of great stuff simply because I didn’t have
a convenient knowledge capture system close at hand.

My solution to this is two-fold:

  • Get a better organization system that can help me organize what I have to do, that is better than the “to-do” list (the aforementioned book is helping with this);
  • Come up with a way of capturing insights when they occur that they can be transformed into useful information.


More on Wikipedia and Knowledge Capture

Wikipedia is great for entering semi-structured bits of information about any subject at all. It is stored in a pseudo database and can be searched. If you are adventurous you can even add your own
tags for category searches. There is currently an effort underway to add semantics to wikis so searches can be even better and more in tune with the meanings of words.

But what about using a wiki for capturing those unstructured, “Aha!” “epiphany” experiences? It certainly would be a responsible place for this type of information, allowing for easy access in
the future, and you wouldn’t lose it because it would be in one place. This is good. This is also a good technique for storing any kind of useful, reference-type information. For example, my
printer has a tendency to lose its IP address periodically, and it is quite complicated to fix but easy if you can remember the steps. However, I could not remember where I stored my description of
the steps! If I had a wiki of my own, I could have stored this in the wiki and found it easily.

Back to epiphanies: there are some practical challenges to entering epiphanies into a wiki.


The Unpredictability of Epiphanies

The problem with epiphanies is that they usually happen in inconvenient times, like when you are anywhere but near a computer. A common place to have one is when you are driving in the car. I like
to swim, and I often do deep thinking in the pool; I can clear my mind then, no phone interruptions. You might be talking with your friend at lunch, and something comes together.

What do you do? How do you record these insights? Most of the time, you don’t, and the opportunity is lost. If you are like me, you try to jot them down on anything handy: sticky note, napkin,
etc. Then what happens to these artifacts? They are usually lost, or in the case of the napkin, ripped beyond understanding. So you have lost the knowledge after all.

Some folks try to record them using a tape recorder of some sort. A colleague on a project recently showed up with a voice recorder that converted the recording to mp3 format and downloaded it onto
a computer. The problem with this is, the recording is very unstructured; it is impossible to search through the recording itself for key words, and you find yourself in an endless cycle of
listening and fast forwarding until you find the spot you want.


Knowledge Capture Nirvana

What we really want is a knowledge capture mechanism that is ubiquitous, available from anywhere/everywhere, that can transfer the information into an understandable, totally searchable format. It
also needs to be easy to use; if it is in any way difficult, people won’t do it.


Ideas from a Tablet PC

I originally got myself a Tablet PC to cut down on all the paperwork I have to manage. I thought it would be a great thing if I didn’t have to carry around a physical notebook to meetings. One
consulting engagement that I had resulted in over 20 such notebooks, and the hard part was figuring out which one had the information that I was looking for. It caused too many “particles” for me
to manage. The tablet, by allowing me to store my handwritten notes, allows me to have all my notes in one place, and they are easy to organize. It has definitely accomplished that objective.

In addition, it enables me to capture extraneous, unstructured data in several different ways. It recognizes my handwriting and converts it into text, but it can also store it as plain handwriting
in One Note (an application that allows you to store and organize notes). It also has “sticky notes” on the tablet which you can write on with handwriting. This is a great place to store
epiphanies until you figure out what to do with them.

It also has voice recognition features. I am just now starting to experiment with the voice features. It can convert voice to text just like it converts handwriting. You can also give it voice
commands. A colleague drafts and sends emails all the time by using the voice features.


Ubiquitous, Spur of the Moment Knowledge Capture

Imagine if all you had to do would be to speak into your tablet PC and say: “New wiki entry: Insight into Project X”, and describe your insight, then some completion command when you are done.
This is much easier than typing or even using handwriting.

Imagine further if you could give this command to your cell phone, and then it would synchronize the data just like it does with your email, except it would interpret the voice commands and load
your entry into the wiki automatically.

This is even easier! And our cell phones go with us everywhere… except maybe the swimming pool! I don’t know the answer to that one yet!


Conclusions

Capturing insights has to be easy or we won’t do it. It has to be especially easy for business people or for sure they won’t do it! I’m a little bit of a techno-geek so I will do it because I
think wikis are cool. But the average business person is not enamored with technology. We have to help them see that technology is a true enabler. The vision I have painted is not entirely
far-fetched. Some cell phones now have a memo feature that you can store a spoken note. I already mentioned that the tablet already has some voice commands available. I will be experimenting with
wikis, voice commands and other knowledge capture ideas. The next topic I plan on investigating is making all of this useful. Knowledge dissemination is just as important as capture. If you can’t
get to the information after you have captured it, or get it to the right people, then it is not very useful!

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About Bonnie O'Neil

Bonnie O'Neil is a Principal Computer Scientist at the MITRE Corporation, and is internationally recognized on all phases of data architecture including data quality, business metadata, and governance. She is a regular speaker at many conferences and has also been a workshop leader at the Meta Data/DAMA Conference, and others; she was the keynote speaker at a conference on Data Quality in South Africa. She has been involved in strategic data management projects in both Fortune 500 companies and government agencies, and her expertise includes specialized skills such as data profiling and semantic data integration. She is the author of three books including Business Metadata (2007) and over 40 articles and technical white papers.

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